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Why the Happiness Scientists Have Got it All Wrong

By thinking about our deepest cares -- the kinds that don't easily translate into surveys or questionnaires -- we discover that happiness is the active orientation of our life towards meaning, purpose, and value.
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Good news: the world is getting happier. So claim researchers from the University of Michigan, who undertook the latest of many recent studies on global well-being. Apparently, levels of individual happiness rise substantially in countries that have democratic governments, enjoy increasing economic prosperity, and promote tolerance of women and minority groups. Not being in a war helps too. Denmark takes the coveted top spot in the happiness rankings, with the United States a modest 16th, and Zimbabwe, the land of unfree elections and material want, languishing at the bottom. But overall, the world is on an upward happiness trajectory, a cause for optimism that should itself breed yet more happiness

Wait a minute. It wasn't so long ago that researchers were telling us the opposite: that we're richer, but not happier. Economists like Richard Layard or psychologists such as the Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman were trumpeting the message that material prosperity had little effect on a person's happiness and, indeed, that most people's happiness varies little over the long term. Only four months ago scientists at Edinburgh University claimed to have demonstrated that some people are genetically predisposed to being happy.

Why don't the happiness scientists agree? Is it because the latest research has uncovered previously unknown information? Not at all. The Michigan experiment looks at happiness surveys going back seventeen years, the results of which have hardly been a secret. Is it because the latest research uses innovative methods? Doesn't seem that way. Participants were asked the same two questions that participants in such surveys have always been asked: "Taking all things together, would you say you are very happy, rather happy, not very happy, not at all happy?" and "All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?" Is it because the scientists are targeting a wider range of participants for their experiments? Hardly. For decades now, happiness research has been conducted on a global scale.

And yet contradictions abound. Yesterday we're told that money doesn't buy happiness; today we're told that it does. Yesterday we were taught that happiness varies little over the long term; today we are informed that it's on the rise. In the face of so much contradictory information, who is a seeker after happiness supposed to believe?

Maybe the scientists don't have the answers. Happiness research is seductive -- and popular in the mainstream media -- because it promises certainty: this will bring you happiness, that won't. But the rapidly emerging contradictions within the research itself are a warning that we should be wary of placing too much trust in the new science of happiness. After all, the hallmark of good scientific research is that its outcomes are repeated when other scientists conduct the same experiment under the same conditions. If you get a different answer every time, then you haven't proved anything. It might be the case that what the Michigan researchers claim is true, but their experiment doesn't appear to provide conclusive evidence for it. And that seems to be the impasse where happiness research is today.

The core problem might well be the concept of happiness itself. For surveys to be valid, the participants have to understand the question in the same way. But if you simply ask people "how happy are you?", without stopping to make sure that everyone shares the same definition of happiness -- which of course they don't -- then the answers you get won't be tremendously meaningful. And then if you introduce, as the researchers did, another term into the question -- "how satisfied are you?" -- a bad situation becomes worse. The surveys are far too inconsistent to provide a stable analysis of how happy people are and what makes them so.

But there's an even deeper concern. The researchers appear to believe that happiness is largely a matter of external factors, of the right arrangement of social building blocks. When they talk about happiness they are really talking about the satisfactions of a comfortable life, a secure job, a pleasant home, and a tolerant and inclusive social atmosphere. We prefer a comfortable life because it's nicer than a harsh one. We prefer a steady job because it's less nerve-wracking than a temporary one. We prefer to be accepted rather than shunned within our community because it enhances our self-esteem. These are good things, excellent things. They are part of our happiness, but they are the lesser part.

In truth, our happiness has more profound sources. We care about the integrity of our values and beliefs. We care about our accomplishments. We care about leaving a legacy to the world. We care about the well being of the people in our lives. By thinking about our deepest cares -- the kinds that don't easily translate into surveys or questionnaires -- we discover that happiness is the active orientation of our life towards meaning, purpose, and value. It's a reflection upon the quality, the character, of our life as a whole.

That's Aristotle meant more than two thousand years ago when he called happiness a state of "flourishing" or "excellence". Cool rationalist that he was, he also admitted that happiness does not come to us easily. Which is why he insisted that happiness an activity: because it requires skill and focus. Far from being a state of passive enjoyment, or relying upon the favorable alignment of external factors, happiness is active effort and the responsibility of each person. More dramatically, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius compared happiness to wrestling, because being happy means "standing prepared and unshaken to meet what comes and what we did not foresee."

Happiness, then, is something that we resolve to achieve rather than something pleasant that comes our way, like sunshine after a rainstorm. So how do we get to happiness? Certainly not by trusting the latest revelations of the happiness scientists. It's like that old joke about the tourist in Manhattan who, realizing that he's lost, asks a passerby, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" The answer: "Practice!"